Marello’s idea of founding the Congregation. Consultation of authoritative and devout priests who approve his plan. First brothers and establishment of the congregation in the Michelerio Charitable Institute. Extreme poverty and their dress. Instructions on the imitation of St. Joseph and his principal teachings. The brother’s activities. First investiture with the religious habit.
The Lord had prepared his faithful servant and found him quick to do the work He wished to entrust to him. Marello had been a priest for ten years before the Lord was finally pleased to make known to him his will, by inspiring him to found a religious congregation, whose primary goal would be to honor St. Joseph and to imitate his virtues, patterning themselves after the great patriarch’s poor, humble, and hidden life. The congregation would be called the Oblates of St. Joseph. This much about the congregation’s purpose was quite clear to our father and founder from the start, and he always insisted on it as long as he lived. But the specific ministries which his sons would perform the Lord had not yet clearly revealed to him.
From the beginning he envisioned the Oblates teaching catechism to help pastors and attending to prayers and care for the House of God, the sacramental home of the Christ so dear to Saint Joseph. Meanwhile he presented his idea to Bishop Savio, who approved heartily and encouraged him to seek the advice of certain men in Turin already famous for being enlightened by God, especially Fr. Carpignano of the Congregation of St. Philip, and Fr. Anglesio, superior of the Little House of Divine Providence. They all approved of his plan. Fr. Anglesio was especially encouraging, saying he felt that it came from God. Indeed, he seemed so favorable that Marello asked him to supply a Vincentian brother to serve as the cornerstone of the new congregation. Fr. Anglesio replied quite sensibly: “The man you need I do not have. And even if I did I would not give him to you. Every congregation God adds to his Church must have a spirit entirely its own.”
Encouraged by the favorable verdict of such wise and learned men, and convinced that it was God’s will, Marello gave himself to prayer until the Lord would send him the right man for his plans. About this time, a certain George Medico from Castello of Annone, 23 years old, had left the diocesan seminary because of poor health. Marello wrote inviting him to the chancery to discuss important matters. Medico came, but he was against entering a new congregation. Meanwhile he had been accepted by the Lazarists, who were preaching a highly successful mission in his hometown. Despite all this, our father kept trying to persuade good George to try it out at least for a while. Such an offer he could not resist, and on March 14, 1878, he and three companions were welcomed by our founder, who settled the little family in a modestly furnished room he rented at the Michelerio Charitable Institute.
Our congregation was founded in extreme poverty. A single room served as a study, washroom, and dining hall. A wardrobe with two curtains provided a sort of wall dividing the little room in two. One side was the parlor where outsiders were met, the other served all other functions mentioned above. The table was as poor as everything else; there was no tablecloth, nor napkins. One apron of rough cloth was used as occasion required for both towel and napkin. The plates were made of earthenware lacquered black, the kind used by the poorest country families. A single unframed picture of St. Joseph adorned the wall. Even the very images of the saints were limited to only one. The founder referred to the example of St. Francis de Sales, whose holy card of St. Joseph was the only one in his breviary. They wore a black wool cassock with a white cravat instead of a collar. Their cap was similar to that worn by waiters of noble families. This style of dressing, required by the Very Rev. Fr. Asso, vice director of the Michelerio Institute, drew surprise and even a little ridicule. The “little brothers”, as Canon Cerruti, director of the Michelerio Institute, had christened them, had to do a real act of humility each time they went for a walk. This is how their day went: they had Mass and communion every day, and recited the Office of the Blessed Virgin in common. For several months the good brothers had a daily meditation or instruction from our founder, focusing their attention on the life and virtues of St. Joseph and exhorting them to imitate him.
It would be impossible to condense what our founder taught his sons in those meditations and individual instructions. In them he communicated his own spirit and what he had learned about St. Joseph from long years of meditation on the works of St. Francis de Sales, whom he read with love and devotion. Above all he taught them of the interior life of St. Joseph.
“The recollection of this saint,” he would say, “produced in his soul an invincible peace and tranquillity that brought the most perfect calm to all his faculties. He was never oppressed by sorrow or discouraged by trials, or too carried away by joy.” Our father was a living example of what he taught our men. Indeed, he had acquired such equanimity of spirit that in his seventeen years with us he never seemed too depressed by setbacks nor too overjoyed by prosperity, but always his same pleasant self. Above all, he loved to teach his sons frequently about the hidden life of this great saint with his beloved Jesus. “In this,” he would often say, “was all the merit and greatness of St. Joseph. Because of this the Church proposes him as a model for all the faithful, but especially for the devout. Mary and Joseph found themselves alone in the stable at Bethlehem. St. Joseph lived for many years unknown in Egypt and then hidden in Nazareth. His life was continual solitude, and even after death he remained unknown, while God determined that only after fifteen centuries would he be given solemn honor. So let us too,” he would conclude with saintly fervor, “be hidden from men, but under the eyes of God; unknown to men, yet dear and beloved to God.”
At the beginning these good brothers understood little or nothing of what was taught them. Some of them tired of such a humble life and preferred to enter the seminary. But those who remained faithful began little by little to savor its beauty and value it more than anything the world could give.
To acquire recollection and advance in virtue, he constantly recommended silence, letting them know that St. Joseph was the saint of silence. “In fact, the Holy Gospel,” he said, “tells us of his inner sorrows, his conversation with the angels, his justice and his virgin purity; the Evangelists tell of his promptness in obeying God’s commands, his journeys and hard work for Jesus; they tell of his exact observance of the divine law and abandonment into the hands of divine providence, his sorrow at losing Jesus and his frantic search for Him, but they do not tell us one word he ever said, even though he was the head of the Holy Family and possessed the authority of the father. The only word he says in the Holy Gospels is ‘Jesus’, the name he gave the Holy Child, a word straight from heaven.” When he talked about these honors of St. Joseph, our father’s face would light up with emotion and holy enthusiasm as he tried to communicate his feelings to their hearts.
He was not content with recommending silence; he insisted it be observed perfectly. He set up two kinds of silence in the house. The first, called “Great Silence”, lasted from the signal for evening prayers until the signal for breakfast, and consisted of avoiding all talking and, in case of necessity, speaking quietly and briefly. The second type was observed at all other times during the day, except recreation, and consisted of avoiding all unnecessary talking. He distilled his teaching of religious perfection into these maxims, “Be Carthusians indoors and Apostles outdoors,” and “Like St. Joseph, let us live each day according to the dispositions of providence, doing whatever God suggests.”
Besides the instructions of the founder, almost every day our brothers had a catechism lesson from the theologian Garetti, a professor from the diocesan seminary. The time remaining free after the practices of piety was used for work, such as tailoring, making rosaries, or taking care of the house. On the Feast of St. Joseph in 1879, the brothers had the great joy of receiving the religious habit. Our founder had gotten the idea for it after making a pilgrimage to the tomb of Blessed John Baptist Vianney in Ars. It consisted of an ample black cassock without buttons, tied at the waist by a sash hanging in two parts on the left side. It had a black neckband over a white collar and a skullcap. The hat and overcoat were like those used by diocesan priests. Up till 1901 the brothers would change their given names at the investiture ceremony, but thereafter to avoid problems, they retained their family names.